Collaboration games in the aftermath of COVID-19
The difficult times we are enduring are unprecedented and have given us some time to reflect on the world we have built and how we interact with each other. These circumstances have placed the video game industry in a unique position to drive societal change and the way we interact with one another. In this article we will explore the role that our industry is playing during the pandemic, the opportunity that we have been given and a thought experiment regarding our role as culture agents.
(Image taken from World Health Organisation page on Corona Virus)
The pandemic vs. the game industry
The undertaken measures by governments, such as mandatory curfew and quarantine, have forced the world to stop as the virus spread across the globe. Suddenly, we found ourselves sitting at home, as if punished, thinking about what we have done. But instead of revisiting last year’s streak of events to ask what we could have done better, let us look into the future and exploring how we can contribute to its improvement.
Let’s not underestimate our industry, which in the last decade has grown to become a cultural and economic powerhouse, and remember that we are a force to be reckoned with. Just in the 4th quarter of 2019, the gaming industry had registered a revenue of approximately 30 billion U.S. dollar, according to statista. This is about 70% of the 42.2 billion U.S. dollars box office revenue that the global TV, Video & Film reported in the whole year of 2019, according to statista. Just for reference; 2019 is the year that MARVEL released some of its most massive titles such as Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
MMOs like Fortnite, Dota2 and pioneers in this field, such as World of Warcraft, among many others, were famous for their vibrant online services and communities, even before the pandemic. But in times of quarantine, online communities have grown in numbers, revenue and become even more meaningful for those who belong. One BBC article from Bryan Lufkin on December 16th suggests, “online gaming has become a social lifeline”, while an article on Inverse talks about the mental health benefits of online gaming and their communities in the context of this pandemic. Even the World Health Organisation has been supporting the #PlayApartTogether initiative, which encourages gamers to stay at home and connect with others, by playing online. This has placed our online game communities in a unique position to bring us together, because they already had all mechanisms in place before the pandemic. They now have the spotlight and everyone’s attention. Now what?
It is important not to ignore that games can influence their users behaviour. The recently formed Ethical Games collective, for example, aims to set higher ethical standards for more responsible game design and accountable industry practices. This gamasutra article gives concise overview of their unveiling, while their website and documentation explains how games can impact their users (players). With this in mind, we’ll be distinguishing multiplayer genres by the behaviours they reward to explore how games could help us overcome difficult circumstances.
Multiplayer game genres
Genre’s help us parse many forms of media into categories based on certain characteristics. The distinction this article intends to make, is not between puzzle, sport or action games. Instead, we will be distinguishing multiplayer games based on their objectives, goals and the intended interactions among players, to understand what behaviours they reward.
(Image taken from Mario Kart 8 Deluxe)
For example, let’s take a look at a simple racing game, such as Mario Kart. As a multiplayer racing game, it has a very straight forward set of conditions: The goal is to finish the race track as quickly as possible, ideally leaving everyone behind. Players compete for the first place and are even given items (banana peels, koopa shells, etc.) that hinder others’ success.
Another type of competitive multiplayer games, are those that place teams against each other, or computer bots, to win the game. Most commonly referred to as cooperative games, these can vary greatly in objectives but the goal is to work as a team to defeat the other parties in a set of tasks. Some good and distinctive examples that fit the proposed criteria of cooperative games are Dota2 (battle), Rocket League (sport) and Overcooked (miscellaneous).
Most multiplayer games thrive on competition and offer both options, such as Rocket League, Overcooked and most FPS with multiplayer mode. They can be played as a duel (one on one) or in teams, where cooperation is encouraged. Cooperative gameplay in story mode is not much different in essence, the same set of conditions apply, but instead of competing against other players, the team is competing against an artificial intelligence, which is virtually the same. However, there is a third genre of multiplayer games that can be easily distinguished from all the previously discussed examples. We’ll be referring to them as collaboration games.
These games are also about cooperation, but unlike the two previous examples, there are no opponents that need to be defeated, thereby removing the element of competition. In collaboration games, players do not compete amongst themselves nor against artificial intelligences. Instead, players need to work together to overcome an obstacle, a circumstance or challenge, like environment hazards or puzzles, just to name some examples. If unsuccessful, everyone may lose or just remain stuck until they achieve their shared objective. With this description, we can easily distinguish multiplayer games based on the competition factor.
It is more difficult to think of examples for this category, as these games are considerably less common than competitive games. The vast majority of multiplayer games seem to be based on some sort of sport or combat, which automatically makes them competitive. Let us review some examples to confirm their existence of these elusive collaboration games and understand how they reward their players. For a uniform comparison, we will refer to their Steam pages, since it is the one platform on which they are all available:
(Image take from Biped Steam page)
2020: Biped, developed by NEXT Studios
“Biped is a coop action adventure game with a strong focus on moment-to-moment collaboration between 2 players.” (Steam page) Published in March of 2020 by NEXT Studios, bilibili and META Publishing, it has accumulated over 2,000 reviews on Steam earned the ‘Very Positive’ descriptor.
(Image taken from Unravel Two Steam page)
2018: Unravel Two, developed by Coldwood Interactive
“When you cut ties to the past, new bonds form. Build relationships with other Yarnys in local co-op or as a single player, fostering friendship and support as you journey together.” (Steam page) Published in June of 2018 by Electronic Arts, it has accumulated over 600 reviews on Steam and earned the ‘Very Positive’ descriptor.
(Image taken from Portal 2 Steam page)
2011: Portal 2, developed by Valve
“The 'Perpetual Testing Initiative' has been expanded to allow you to design co-op puzzles for you and your friends!” (Steam page) Published in April of 2011 by Valve, it has accumulated over 180 thousand reviews on Steam and earned the ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ descriptor.
More come to mind, such as Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons or Ibb & Obb. All of these games adhere perfectly to the description we provided to define collaboration games. As the examples show, they can be diverse, story driven, abstract and falling anywhere between action and puzzle games. Their objectives can vary greatly, but they all share one commonality: The challenges and obstacles are designed in a way that they cannot be overcome individually. Players are required to work together in order to achieve their common goal. So we find, that there are two key characteristics that define collaboration games and make this genre of multiplayer games unique:
- Players do not compete against any form of intelligence (human nor digital)
- Teamwork is not only rewarded, but essential to progress
What collaboration games can do for us
In summary, we have seen that the video games industry has become massive and has the power to shape its communities and influence the behaviour of its users. We found that among the different kinds of multiplayer games, there is a less explored genre that we are calling “collaboration games”. These games can be diverse in style, but are characterised by being non-competitive and requiring collaboration among its players to make progress in the game.
As game makers we belong to this massive industry and feel the pressure to create unique products that will stand out from the rest. Most multiplayer games already reward competition, and while a certain degree of competition can be healthy, extremes are never good. Additionally, we should also think about the current circumstance of our world and how we wish to contribute. Periodically we find ourselves at the verge of new projects, where we often have the power to choose or influence what kind of games we want to make. As contributors to this influential cultural medium, it is also our responsibility to ask ourselves how we want to impact our communities through the games we make.
With vaccines in production and slowly making their way to the public, we can see the light at the end of this crisis. The time has finally come to rethink our future and the role we want our games to play in it. Now is the time to make the decisions that will shape the games and influence the way we come together, and interact with each other, in the aftermath of COVID-19.
It will be a time for reunion and could be a time for empathy and inclusiveness, instead of the usual competition-based scenario. Let us unite and explore this untapped genre of multiplayer games, intentionally rewarding non-competitive collaboration with wholesome, engaging and meaningful experiences.
Thank you for reading!
Let me know if you thought this was interesting. Especially if you are think it merits further research. I would be happy to jump on that train!